Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist

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I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.


[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Why I Don’t Write Novels about Scientists—and Why, If You Knew Them, You Probably Wouldn’t Either

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People who know me are sometimes surprised that I don’t write about scientists. “A scientist would make a great character,” they tell me. “People are interested in scientists; they’re colorful; and you know all about them.”

Even without asking, I know the people who say this all really enjoyed the Back to the Future movies.

Heck, I enjoyed them myself; and the character of Dr. Emmett Brown did, in certain key ways, actually resemble some scientists I have known. Just dial Dr. Brown’s eccentricity and flamboyance waaaaaay back, preserve (or enhance) his single-mindedness and drive, increase the Brown family fortune that he spent up doing his research to at least twenty million dollars* (it took him—what? thirty years?—and doing research is very expensive), then load him up with a lot of teaching duties and administrative responsibilities and the fictional inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean would make a perfectly plausible researcher.

But—and this is the critical part—not a very good character in a movie, or book.

While it is true that a lot of scientists are a bit eccentric (some quite charmingly so), to be successful they have a lot of other traits that are the opposite of colorful. Doing research, as I mentioned, is expensive and most real scientists don’t have a family fortune to spend. Therefore, they must secure grants, which requires, not flamboyance, but an organized and linear thinker who can marshal past research successes, the present research status, and a coherent three-to-five-year plan for advancing the field into a forty-page document that will convince a panel of competing researchers and at least one cold-hearted government agency that any large chunks of money they throw his way will be well spent. I’ve known researchers who sported flying hair and flapping lab-coats à la Dr. Emmett Brown, and even ones who, like Einstein, eschewed socks. But believe me, when it comes to getting funding, they are as practical and business-like as any CEO, and just as uptight.

And then, if Dr. Brown is a scientist, then why isn’t Marty McFly more educated about time travel? Hang around scientists for long (five minutes) and what you find is that they can’t stop talking about what they do. They’re used to talking about their research, because that’s a huge part of their job; and since they mostly talk to other researchers who find what they say riveting, they’re used to thinking that everyone wants to hear all about it. Scientists teach everybody, all the time. Even scientists in research institutions who have no classes to teach still have to educate their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows; the public (funding again!); and—through seminars and symposia—their peers. Marty was Dr. Brown’s friend and didn’t know about the flux capacitor???? He’d have heard all about the flux capacitor nine million times!

In my experience your average scientist, far from being a wild-eyed loony, is much too serious, driven, single-minded, analytic, practical, deeply but not widely knowledgeable (there are exceptions), and naturally skeptical for me to want to write about.

Also—and this may be the real reason they don’t come up in my novels—despite all this practicality, etc. etc., an incredible number of them love the Three Stooges. I just don’t think my writing skills are up to making that seem believable.


*Question: Are we supposed to deduce that Dr. Brown burned down the family mansion to get the insurance on it to fund his research? Because this has been suggested to me by several people in a “duh! Of course he did” tone of voice when I totally did not see that at all. Not that don’t believe that there are real scientists—a few—who might do this if all their other funding sources ran out; I just didn’t see it.

Some Useful Information If You Plan to Set Your Novel in the Nineteen-Fifties

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When I was thirteen years old, I read Pride and Prejudice, which taught me a lot about writing in general, and especially about the value of small, period details in historical fiction. Not that Jane Austen wrote P&P as historical fiction, of course. As far as she was concerned, it was just regular fiction; and I personally like the way that means that she didn’t feel any need to describe every detail of what everybody wore. Some people love costume-descriptions, and there’s a lot of historical fiction that’s almost more historical than fiction that caters to those very people. Myself, I treasure the tiny, just-right particular, such as—in the case of Pride and Prejudice—the line “…the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy…”

Apparently I’m not the only person whose attention was caught by this sentence. A quick Google-search (not possible when I was thirteen) reveals that not only is it widely known and quoted, but that there are websites whose specific purpose is to teach Jane Austen fans how to make shoe-roses. To get that information in my day, I had to spend a lot of time in used bookstores, poring through old books of housekeeping advice. I ended up buying a lot of these books, despite the fact that most were mildewed and I am allergic to mildew. (You can kill mildew in a microwave oven—try not to set the book on fire—but home microwaves are another thing that did not exist back in the Pleistocene, when I was thirteen.) I treasure the book in which I finally found an explicit definition of “shoe-roses” (it includes the advice that “if the shoes be very worn, make the roses large, to cover them”); but I have to admit that the jewel of my housekeeping-book collection is the one containing directions for doing something Jane Austen probably never even considered: gilding a live fish. Yes, gilding; and yes, live. The idea was that if you were giving a party, and if you had a fish-pond or bowl (and, presumably, if the fish in the bowl wasn’t already a goldfish), you could dazzle your guests by gussying the little fellow up with a few sheets of gold-leaf. Best line in the whole book: “The fish does not mind this.” I have never found a literary use for this nugget of information, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, what this is all leading up to is that for some reason that I cannot begin to imagine, the 1950s are hot. This means that people who weren’t actually there are suddenly writing books about the fifties, throwing in—willy-nilly in some cases—factoids of the Fifties Experience that, while true, are sometimes a little too obviously culled from history texts and fashion magazines.

Consider this: Does your house/wardrobe/menu resemble those in today’s fashion magazines? I thought not. So in case you’re thinking of writing something about the fifties, here are some particulars you can put in it, guaranteed genuine, to supply what we will call “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”*

First and foremost, not everything in the fifties was from the fifties! The people who make movies are the worst for forgetting this. People mostly still drove forties cars; and due to the shortage of new cars during WWII, some of them drove thirties cars. A big shiny thing with lots of chrome and fins was rare enough to turn heads in a middle-class neighborhood. People’s houses were filled with forties stuff, too. If you think the ubiquitous aqua/burnt orange/grayish pink fifties color schemes looked good with an off-white naugahyde sofa—you’re right. The combination was pretty cool, actually. But imagine it instead with an overstuffed davenport—in a color somewhere between brown and purple—left over from 1946. For most people, that was the reality of 50s decorating.

What became the “walk-in closet” was often referred to as a “Hollywood closet” in the fifties, because unless you lived in Hollywood, the closet in your bedroom was small. Which was fine. You didn’t have many clothes to put in it anyway. Also, all shoes were uncomfortable until the day before they were totally worn out. My family was poor and I wore cheap shoes, but I have to assume from the speed with which rich people adopted lovely, soft, comfortable running shoes when they were finally invented that expensive shoes were stiff and caused blisters, too. Good line for a fifties party scene: “Jeepers, my feet are killing me!”

Big Brother, aka your neighbors, was watching. Big Brother gossiped, too.

Racism and sexism were pervasive. Throw in a joke about what bad drivers women are and if no one in your book challenges it—even though insurance companies knew women were better drivers than men, and charged them less for insurance—and you will have created a genuine fifties moment. Racist “humor” will also set an authentic tone, but by today’s standards, even the mildest will rightly be considered highly offensive. Risk it only in works of a particularly “gritty” nature.

In the fifties, if your mom was a terrible cook, you were screwed. Fast food was a very new concept, and resorted to only occasionally. Restaurants were expensive, and not child-friendly. If your mom was the kind to boil pork-chops and believed canned peas—also boiled—were good enough for anybody, you had no alternative but to eat boiled pork-chops and canned peas. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Also in the fifties, lots of foods that didn’t belong there were made “interesting” by being suspended in lime jello. These foods included Vienna Sausages. Really.

Men had jobs. Women had children. And hobbies. Your average lower-middle-class house was filled with ugly ceramics, hideous needlepoint, or crocheted everything. On the other hand, toilet-paper rolls “disguised” by a crocheted lady in a flared skirt were better than a mom with that other fifties hobby, which was heavy drinking.

I lived through the fifties. I lived through the sixties. At no time in either decade did I ever hear one single adult admit to liking rock and roll music. Ever.

There you have it. Make what use of you will of these gems. Or, on the other hand, don’t. Write about the sixties, instead. Trust me: The sixties were better.


*W.S. Gilbert; The Mikado. I am a HUGE fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Meta-Plotting

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If you’re looking for a plot, there are lots of lists you can consult for ideas.  The lists contain various numbers of elements, from one to thirty-six (and possibly more), but most of them have it in common that they don’t make any value judgements.  They’re just lists.  If you decide you want to write—just as an example—a Polti number four, “vengeance taken for kin upon kin,” that’s your business.  What the compilers of the lists aimed for was completeness, with the underlying assumption that what made a plot good was how it was handled.

Then there’s Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:  Why We Tell Stories.

Mr. Booker maintains (through 700 pages) not that there are only seven plots; but that there are only seven good ones.  Any work with a plot falling outside of his list is, by definition, a bad work.  On the good list are Crocodile Dundee and Brewster’s Millions; on the bad side, The Cherry Orchard, everything by Proust, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Also Rigoletto, no matter who sings the part of Gilda.

Um…pretty sure I heard different.

there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells

Mr. Booker has reasons for judging literary works as he does, and the reason isn’t because he’s a contrarian.  He is a contrarian, as a matter of fact.  Among other things, he passionately maintains that global warming is a sham; evolution is false; and neither asbestos nor tobacco causes cancer.  –And don’t even get him started on the British Family Court System, or Social Services.  But in the case of literature, Mr. Booker feels that the worth of a work depends entirely on how well it serves the specific purpose of providing Jungian-style therapy for the reader.  A work’s plot, Booker feels, should parallel the human journey from total dependence in infancy; through adolescent efforts to break away from family (life’s greatest trauma); to establishment in the world as a mature individual.  Life itself has a plot, the Meta-plot, and through repeated exposure to literature that mirrors this meta-plot, we come to terms with life.

First in the meta-plot story is the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to an adventure (as the child wishes to be an adult).  Then comes the dream stage.  The hero has some success, and imagines that he is invincible (“I got an A on my math quiz!”).  This is followed by the frustration stage, when life slaps the hero around a little (we all remember that stage, right?), and he discovers that he’s not invincible after all.

Then things get really bad.  It’s the nightmare stage.  The plot’s peak.  Hope is lost, everyone hates you; everything sucks.  Then—and not a moment too soon for most of us—comes the resolution, where the hero overcomes the odds.  Life’s not so bad after all, and we learned plenty along the way.

That’s the meta-plot, the one, single, really good, wholly acceptable, therapeutic One Plot to Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings is, predictably, on Booker’s approved list).  The Seven Basic Plots of Booker’s title are encompassed by the meta-plot—subsets of the meta-plot, so to speak—and have names like Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf; Shrek); The Quest (The Pilgrim’s Progress; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle); and Rebirth (Peer Gynt; Machine Gun Preacher).

As a matter of fact, I like Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—all Booker bads.  I like them a lot and I think they’re not only good, but great.   I personally don’t believe that people need all the books they read to conform to the meta-plot to provide them with continual therapy.

But on the other hand, there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sellsThe Hunger Games outsold Women in LovePeter Rabbit outsold The MetamorphosisHarry Potter outsold everything.

So for my next book, I’m sticking with THE META-PLOT.  Art aside, I could use the bucks.